I first encountered The Crimson Petal and the White—both the original novel (by Michel Faber, 2002) and the BBC mini-series (Dir. Marc Munden, 2011)—in a university module entitled “Televising the Victorians”. As the name suggests, the module was concerned with how novels from the Victorian era are adapted into period dramas, particularly into the serialised, episodic productions that we’ve all come to know and love.
What initially drew my attention to Munden’s adaptation was its “faux-Victorian” edge; following the footsteps of its source material’s dependence on traditional tropes and narrative aspects of works from the Victorian era, but written with a modern perspective on the century. The result? A deliciously postmodern period drama that strives (and succeeds) to deliver a gritty, unapologetic “realistic” presentation of 19th-century London—particularly in terms of its representation of its female characters.
The most prominent instance of this manifests itself within the series’ protagonist, Sugar (Romola Garai), a prostitute with dreams of attaining power by climbing the social ladder by becoming the mistress of a wealthy perfumer named William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd). By placing a prostitute in the central position of a Victorian period drama, it completely reverses the typical exclusion of female sexuality within the genre.
However, the dramatisation goes further in its visual representation of the novel; with the inclusion of such scenes as prostitutes urinating into chamber-pots and depictions of their rudimentary methods of contraception working to not only present modern knowledge of the era, but to also offer some humanisation into traditionally one-dimensional characters. Take the typical treatment of Oliver Twist‘s Nancy, for example. It’s heavily implied that she works as a prostitute as well as a thief within the novel, and adaptations have a tendency to dress her in red or purple clothing (colours typically associated with sexual desire)—yet her occupation is never directly addressed in any great lengths.
Within Crimson Petal, violence against sex-workers is both heavily implied within lines of dialogue and shown more graphically in the bruised and bloodied face of one of Sugar’s friends. Sugar’s revenge against the men who’ve wronged her (and her companions as a whole) takes the form of a seemingly never-ending novel that concerns the torture and murder of a number of men, in great detail—which not only adds an edge of anger that subverts the societal expectation of women to be meek, but also breaks the stereotype of women, and the lower-classes in general, as uneducated in reading and writing.
The treatment of mental illness, specifically in regards to women, and the rudimentary knowledge of female anatomy within the doctors of the period is also explored, primarily through Agnes Rackham (Amanda Hale), the wife of Sugar’s lover. The product of multiple repressions—primarily her staunch Catholic beliefs that clash with the popularity of Anglicanism and her extremely restrictive diet that includes drugs to quell her appetite—Agnes’s illness is simultaneously reduced to hysteria by her doctor and allowed to manifest itself blatantly to the viewer.
Coupling these repressions with an intense naivety towards her own body and the mechanics of sex, Agnes’ innocence results in a complete denial of motherhood, rooted in a belief that the experiences of childbirth and menstruation are caused by demons being exorcised from/trying to enter her body. In portraying the different societal pressures and personal anxieties that Agnes is affected by, Crimson Petal fleshes out the role of “the manic women” so often employed in Victorian novels (just think of Bertha Mason in Brontë’s Jane Eyre). This results in an additional sense of depth and humanisation that subverts the dichotomy that divides women into either sane or hysterical within both Victorian literature and their respective adaptations.
All in all, I just really enjoyed watching a period drama that didn’t pigeon-hole its female characters into flat or largely censored stereotypes; which were successfully challenged through Munden’s dedication to presenting a “realistic” image of the period. Little details such as the inclusion of female body hair—Sugar’s armpit hair, for example—and the juxtaposition of Agnes’ tiny meals with her husband’s large appetite don’t only humanise the women within the series, but also serve to offer a much different focus on the Victorian standards of physical beauty being addressed in such a variety of ways that contrast with those present within typical adaptations.
The Crimson Petal and the White worked amazingly well as a novel, and I feel that Munden’s adaptation has done nothing but build upon a solid source text to create a stunning mini-series that manages to apply a modern scope onto archetypal Victorian characters and narratives; whilst simultaneously giving a voice to the female characters that are so often neutralised within literature of the period and adaptations alike.